California has sued tech billionaire Vinod Khosla over beach access, reviving a decade-long legal battle

source
Robert Galbraith/Reuters; Mario Anzuoni/Reuters; and Melia Robinson/Business Insider
  • The state of California filed a lawsuit against billionaire tech investor Vinod Khosla on Monday, alleging that he restricted access to a beach in San Mateo county.
  • The Sun Microsystems co-founder bought properties bordering San Mateo’s Martins Beach for roughly $32 million back in 2008, and closed off public access to it in 2010.
  • The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the California Coastal Commission and the State Lands Commission, revives the decade-long bitter legal battle over access to that beach. Their argument revolves on whether Martins Beach has historically been a public beach.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The state of California just revived a decade-long bitter legal battle with billionaire tech investor Vinod Khosla, over restricting access to a strip of a San Mateo beach bordering his property.

California’s Attorney General filed a lawsuit on behalf of the California Coastal Commission and the State Lands Commission on Monday, alleging that Khosla had prevented the public from accessing Martins Beach, a San Mateo spot popular with locals for surfing and fishing. California’s Constitution guarantees public access to all coastal beaches below the mean high tide line.

The lawsuit, filed in California state court in San Mateo county, is the latest in a series of exhaustive legal fights that have spanned more than a decade, after Khosla began to block people from accessing the beach back in 2010.

The US Supreme Court’s refusal in 2018 to hear Khosla’s appeal on a lawsuit filed by the Surfrider Foundation appeared to have put an end to the matter. A San Francisco appeals court had ruled earlier that Khosla needed state permission to gate off access to the beach.

But the two state agencies that are pushing California’s lawsuit say that Khosla has not complied with the ruling, alleging that the gate “has not been consistently open” and that the venture capitalist has yet to file a permit requesting permission.

A statement delivered by Khosla’s lawyer to Business Insider pointed back to a newer ruling on a different lawsuit regarding Martins Beach in November 2019. The San Mateo appeals court ruled that the beach had not been historically public, as previous owners had charged a fee to go there.

“In the Surfrider case, it was undisputed that the property is private. The case did not in any way address the issue of whether the public has a right to free use and access of the property,” Dori Yob Kilmer, a lawyer for Khosla, said in a statement that pushed back against the San Francisco appeals court’s ruling.

Khosla, the famously outspoken cofounder of Sun Microsystems, told the New York Times in 2018 that he regretted buying the property but would continue fighting for his privacy based on “principle,” safeguarding property rights. His lawyer doubled down on that sentiment on Monday, writing to Business Insider that the state of California’s actions were “commonplace in communist systems,” but had never been tolerated in a country where “the U.S. Constitution precludes the government from simply taking private property and giving it to the public.”

According to Khosla’s lawyer, the beach was privately owned by the Deeney family for roughly one century and the family “chose to use it as a revenue-generating beach-access business.”

But the state of California appears to be gearing to fight the designation of Martins Beach as private.

The lawsuit seeks to make Khosla remove all gates and signage purporting to limit access to the beach, and to prohibit him from building any structures that would impede access to the beach.

“The state’s lawsuit filed this week asks the court to consider unexamined evidence and confirm that the public has the right to continue using Martins Beach. The Coastal Commission has spent several years conducting surveys of beach goers and collecting evidence of continuous public use from more than 225 respondents, including written accounts, photographs, personal journal entries and news articles, reflecting public use as early as back to the 1800s,” a press release reiterating the beach’s popularity with the public said.